Amid conflicting signals, Trump shows ‘who’s the boss’
Washington- A month after US President Donald Trump embarked on his first trip to the Middle East to reassure allies there about America’s reliability, the government in Washington is leaving everybody in the region guessing about its position on the Qatar crisis.
Trump overrode conciliatory statements by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson by putting the United States firmly on the side of Saudi Arabia in the spat with Qatar in a statement delivered June 9. As Tillerson and other officials have taken a much more nuanced position in face of the crisis, there is confusion about what the United States is trying to achieve.
US Defence Secretary James Mattis told a congressional committee on June 12 that Qatar, branded a regional terror sponsor by Trump, was moving in the right direction. Mattis and his Qatari counterpart Khalid bin Mohammad al-Attiyah finalised the sale of up to 36 F-15 jets from the United States to Qatar for about $12 billion. Tillerson had been trying to get top officials from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar to travel to Washington for talks about ways to end the rift.
These actions by Mattis and Tillerson stood in stark contrast to Trump’s stated position. He said he was involved in the decision by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and others to isolate Qatar, which he described as a move to bring pressure on the government in Doha to stop funding radical groups. In a sign of tension within the US government, US Ambassador to Qatar Dana Shell Smith resigned from her post. The ambassador was among US officials who previously commended Qatar for making process in curbing the flow of money to radical groups.
Observers said the disarray is a consequence of the inner dynamics in the administration under Trump. Owen Daniels, a Middle East analyst at the Atlantic Council in Washington, said Trump undermined Tillerson, Mattis and others by highlighting his own position as president. “He is reminding them who’s boss,” Daniel said. Actions by other players in the government could be swept away “like a house of cards,” he said.
Some observers said the fact that Trump’s foreign policy is highly personalised gives outside players a potentially big influence on Washington’s stance. Speaking on condition of anonymity during a visit to Washington after the start of the Qatar crisis, a high-ranking Western official speculated that Saudi Arabia had steered Trump towards taking a position that was in line with Riyadh’s wishes. Trump was “erratic ,” the official added. “You really can’t talk about a reliable US foreign policy.”
Considering this lack of predictability, all eyes turn to Trump because he has the last word. “If people are taking different public positions on big issues, then the world will begin to tune out everyone but the president, who ultimately makes the decisions,” Jonathan Finer, a chief of staff of former US Secretary of State John Kerry, told the Washington Post.
“This is not normal,” said David Mack, a former US ambassador to the United Arab Emirates who now works for the Middle East Institute in Washington. The US president was supposed to be supportive of members of his own cabinet, he said, but that was not the case with Trump.
With Tillerson’s mediation initiative showing no progress, Daniels said the solution to the Qatar crisis must come from the Gulf countries themselves. The United States would probably be able to play a role in bringing the adversaries’ positions closer by persuading them to tone down their demands, he said, adding: “It will be a facilitating role.”
Mack said the “institutional relationship” between the United States and Gulf countries based on common long-term economic and military interests was unaffected by the political disagreements and would ultimately help to resolve the crisis. “But it might take a year to get things back on track,” he said.
As the Trump administration tries to find its footing, Qatar’s opponents are increasing their lobbying efforts in Washington. Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the United States, said Washington should abandon the Al Udeid base south of Doha. The base, the United States’ largest in the Middle East, is home to a forward headquarters of the US Central Command. It is an ultra-modern command centre with 10,000 US troops and conducts operations in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, including air strikes in Syria and other places.
Otaiba said the United States should pull its soldiers and equipment out of Qatar. “Maybe someone in Congress should have a hearing and just say, you know, ‘Should we consider moving it?’” he was quoted in news reports as saying.
Analysts said the UAE would be happy to provide a new home for the US base. Ed Royce, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House of Representatives, said in May that Congress was ready to consider moving the base to another site in the Middle East if Doha did not change its ways.